Design Lessons from Tom and Sarah Tomerlin Lee

Multi-hyphenated nicknames are now very common among influencers and aspirants. But decades before interdisciplinary design became such a defining salary track, the husband-and-wife team of Tom Lee and Sarah Tomerlin Lee exercised their design dexterity working in department stores, interiors, theater , magazine publishing and architecture.

Their largely unknown professional lives are the focus of a new exhibit at the New York School of Interior Design, and can also be viewed online. On view until December 5, “Designing Duo: Tom Lee and Sarah Tomerlin Lee” draws from the couple’s archives, which were donated to the Upper East Side University.

Building an archive of interior designers’ work was part of the show’s impetus, according to Donald Albrecht, who co-curated the show with Thomas Mellins. “And as with all life these days, there’s a desire to expand on the beaten path of the typical male-dominated white designer,” he said.

Tomerlin Lee was widely known in her day for renovating the Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York and the Willard in Washington, DC, and serving as editor of House Beautiful, but she has been largely forgotten, Albrecht said. “We were interested in her husband, but he was a very dynamic and interesting woman. She has worked at Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Lord & Taylor. Their ambidexterity is the part that we found fascinating. It’s real New York history – high-end retail, fashion and decorative arts journalism, historic preservation, interiors, Broadway,” Albrecht said.

At various points in his career, Tom Lee designed sets and costumes for famed composer Irving Berlin, worked on a ballet for Lincoln Kirstein, and cultivated Bonwit Teller’s reputation for theater store windows, including some- unes imagined by Salvador Dalí in 1939. After serving in the counterintelligence branch of the United States Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Lee started his own design company in 1947, then designed properties such as interiors from the Williamsburg Motor Lodge and the Tehran Hilton. After his death in a car accident in 1971, his wife, then in her 60s, took over the design business and went on to take care of the interiors of more than 40 hotels.

Tomerlin Lee’s professional trajectory was rooted in fashion, having worked in marketing at Bonwit Teller, the pioneering creative agency of Margaret Hockaday, the marketing department of Lord & Taylor, and acting as a beauty editor at Vogue and Harper’s. Bazaar long before her starring role at House Beautiful. She was also president of the Fashion Group in the 1960s, held that same position at the Decorators Club, and was the founder of the New York Landmarks Conservatory. Tomerlin Lee also edited the book “American Fashion: The Life and Times of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell and Trigere”. In the 90s, when Tom Lee Ltd. became Beyer Blinder Belle’s interior design department, Tomerlin Lee headed it from 1993 to 1997. Working until she was over 80, she died in 2001 at the age of 90.

As for what those new to design could learn from the Lees’ career paths, Albrecht said, “It says, ‘Be flexible.’ What Sarah used to say was that she had a tendency to move sideways. She didn’t accept the job of boss – she moved from one job to another. And she used words, stories and stories. Obviously, this is relevant for fashion journalism. But when it came to doing hotel interiors, her approach was to tell the story of a hotel and she derived her ideas from writing them down. She would sell the idea by text more than she would by drawing, Albrecht said.

The galleries are open to the public and the exhibition is also accessible virtually.

Photo by Steven Eloiseau/Courtesy

Newcomers might be careful to be flexible in manifesting a theme in different disciplines, Albrecht said.

For Tomerlin Lee, the enormous five-story mirrored atrium of the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City reflected his “fusion of modern combined with history,” Albrecht said, adding that something about Lees’ ethos was “optimistic, fun, glamorous, romantic and free. What is also interesting is that he worked and she worked, when modernism was king. We believe that modernism is [synonymous] with Florence Knoll, the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Seagram Building and [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe. But also, there is an alternate history of modernism that is more decorative, romantic, and overtly draws on history. One way to be modern is to look to history and bring it up to date. It’s something that people don’t realize was happening in the 50s and 60s.”

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